Witchcraft Accusations and The Role of The Church

Very interesting to hear from one of our guest bloggers, Mitch Horowitz, about some of the things that are being done to combat human rights abuses linked to witchcraft accusations. One of the things he talked about was the role of churches, and this is something I’d like to talk more about today.

As I said in an earlier post, it is essential to understand that the belief in witches is genuine. As a human rights activist, whatever my own personal beliefs, I consider we have to respect the religious beliefs of others – after all the right to freedom of belief is a fundamental human right, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But one human right can never be used to justify the abuse of another right.

The right to believe in witchcraft, and indeed that children can be witches cannot be used to legitimise the abuse of children.

This is why the role of the church, and work to engage with churches is so crucial. In the Nigerian and wider West African context, churches are certainly part of the problem - children can be initially accused of witchcraft by church leaders - some of our research shows this is the case in around a third of cases. Also, a suspicion from parents or the community that a child is a witch is confirmed by the church. And there are many cases where abuse has been carried out by a pastor.

But churches are also part of the solution. They have a huge amount of influence within their local communities, and through working with them we can really start to change how people behave towards children. In Nigeria, as well as other countries such as DR Congo and Togo, there are growing networks of churches who are standing against the abuse of children who have been accused of witchcraft, preaching against child abuse and providing practical help. It’s also really exciting that there are several highly expert African theologians who are determined to end this abuse.

Since 2012, I’ve been the Safe Child Africa representative on the Steering Committee of the Stop Child Witch Accusations Coalition (SCWA). Through this work, I’ve learnt some fascinating things about the nature of the belief in child witchcraft and where this has come from, in the context of the Christian church.

For example, the Bible is often used to justify accusations of witchcraft and abuse of children who are believed to be witches. But I’ve been told that in the original Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew texts, there is no mention of witchcraft.  There are references to sorcerers and diviners, who are essentially magicians with learnt or occult powers, who seek to assume God’s role in knowing the future and in controlling nature, but these are very different to ‘witches’ as understood in the African context. Theological analysis has shown that some Biblical verses have been mistranslated, and this means they can be taken out of context and used to justify witchcraft accusations and abuse. And in fact, there is a huge amount in the Bible that makes it clear that children should be loved, cherished and cared for, but never abused.

There is also a process known as syncretism, where over time, traditional beliefs in witchcraft have fused with the more recent spread of Christianity; particularly revivalist churches in Africa.  Often, churches are led by untrained pastors who have little theological knowledge, and this can result in understandings of the Bible being misinterpreted to support abuse of children who are thought to be witches. For example, one expert on witchcraft accusations, Dr Opoku Onyinah, Chairman of the Church of Pentecost in Ghana has said

 ‘There is no linking in the New Testament of the idea of witches who harm others with demon possession. The traditional idea of witchcraft has become syncretised with the Christian concept of demon possession to create a Witch Demonology.’

So what do we do about this? One thing that I have learnt over the years is that a confrontational approach does not work. Simply telling people that their beliefs and practices are wrong and that they have to change is not effective. What does work is finding common ground, and then building on that to help affected communities identify abuse of children stemming from witchcraft accusations as a problem and to find alternative, non-abusive responses.